For any hockey team in any league, a five-game losing streak is a less than ideal situation to be in.
For the Texas Stars, a team that is currently sitting in 1st place in the AHL's Western Conference with 78 points and a record of 34-16-4-6, "less than ideal" doesn't even begin to describe their current struggles.
In the last few months the Stars have been the team to watch out for in the AHL. Prior to this recent slide, they had gone a staggering 17-2-1-2 since the start of 2013, vaulting them not only into the top spot in the West, but also for a time into 1st place in the entire league. Despite a glut of injuries and heavy roster rotation, with players being recalled to Dallas and reassigned back down, head coach Willie Desjardins was still able to assemble victories out of whatever remaining parts he had at his disposal.
Suffice to say, things had been going so well for the Stars that they had likely begun to forget what real adversity felt like.
Well, at least until recently. Texas had a five-game winning streaked snapped by the Oklahoma City Barons in a 3-2 loss on February 26 and things began to fall further downhill from there, culminating in an uncharacteristic five-game losing streak, with the last of the losses coming in a 5-4 shootout defeat to the San Antonio Rampage on March 8.
Thankfully, the Stars managed to halt that skid on Wednesday night due to a tight 4-3 victory over the Abbotsford Heat, retaining their spot in 1st. The Stars had built themselves enough of a cushion when they were winning all over the place to retain top spot in the conference despite the losses, but both the Grand Rapids Griffins and Charlotte Checkers have certainly closed that gap over the last two weeks.
While the win allowed a collective sigh of relief for the team's fans, it was far from a perfect victory. Abbotsford led 2-1 after the first and then had the Stars on their heels in the third, out shooting them 11-2. Clearly there are still some kinks that needs to be worked out for the club before they get back to the form that they had as little as a month ago.
But as frustrating and disappointing as a slide like this is to a team that has enjoyed such continued and dominant success as of late, Texas' struggles right now might end up paying huge dividends for them later on in the season.
To illustrate how, let's take a brief step back in time to the 2008 playoffs, a year that Dallas Stars fan are sure to remember. Led by mastadonic performances from Brenden Morrow's and some elite goaltending by Marty Turco, Dallas forged a triumphant second round upset over the heavily favored San Jose Sharks in six games.
For the sake of nostalgia:
What most people probably don't remember is that the Sharks were the NHL's hottest team heading into the playoffs that year, registering points in 20 out of their last 21 games. They were the main team that nobody wanted to face.
Yet some hockey journalists saw the potential for the Sharks' season to go the way of the Titanic. From a 2008 article by the New York Times, published prior to the start of the post-season:
“Any hesitancy that you’re going to peak too soon?” Coach Ron Wilson was asked during a conference call last week. “Don’t you want to lose a couple of games before you get to the playoffs?”
There is a persistent belief among commentators and fans that winning too much in the regular season is bad, as if it somehow detracts from a team’s playoff abilities.
“We try and prepare to win every game,” Wilson said unapologetically. “You don’t plan on a streak like this. We want to keep playing our kind of hockey right now, playoff hockey.”
Wilson didn't see the impending iceberg from his view from the captain's chair. His Sharks had become accustomed to winning games with ease, and weren't properly prepared for a Stars team that, while not as skilled, was more determined and battle-hardened than they were.
Now, going on a huge streak late in the regular season doesn't always lead to complacency or fatigue come playoff time. The Norfolk Admirals' historic 2011-2012 Calder Cup-winning season exemplifies that. But even great teams will eventually suffer from losing slumps more often than not, and it's still easier to learn how to properly rebound from unsuccessful stretches of hockey during the regular season as opposed to the playoffs, where four consecutive losses is an automatic end to the year.
Yet, conversely, some teams dominate for stretches, get demoralized from hitting a wall, and then never recover. It all depends on each situation the team is in and how well-equipped they are to handle it.
However, despite their recent troubles, all signs point to Texas being capable of turning things around. Wednesday's win over Abbotsford wasn't pretty, but it was a start. Most of the team's injured players have returned to the ice, and others that are returning to the team from time spent in Dallas (Matt Fraser, Francis Wathier and Cristopher Nilstorp recently, while Jamie Oleksiak, Jordie Benn and Tomas Vincour could all be headed back down at any given point) come back with valuable experiences at their disposal, as well as the extra determination to get back there and stay permanently. Considering what Desjardins was able to do with a squad teeming with ECHL-level players it's safe to assume that he will continue to do great things once he has a roster that is healthy and is bolstered by NHL experience.
The Texas Stars have 16 games left before the playoffs begin. They've already shown that they know how to win. If they can successfully learn how to manage and quickly recover from losing then they will become an even more dangerous team than the one already sitting in first place.
**Stephen of Hundred Degree Hockey is on vacation in Europe for the next few weeks. Thanks to Derek for filling in.